The History of the T-Shirt

By: Matthew Stewart


The history of the T-shirt is replete with origin myths. In one sense, T-shirts -- lightweight undergarments designed to be worn in hot or extremely temperate conditions -- have been around for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests that laborers in ancient Egypt wore a kind of “T-shirt,” and anthropologists and clothing historians can point to many similar garments throughout history.

Last Century

The modern incarnation of the T-shirt originated sometime between the late-19th and mid-20th century. Some Anglophiles remain convinced that the English were the first to design the T-shirt in around 1880. In any case, by the turn of the century, many clothiers in Europe had picked up on the trend.

United States citizens first became aware of the existence of “light cotton undergarments” during World War I, after American soldiers saw their European counterparts wearing them. Members of the US Navy at that time were required to wear heavy wool uniforms, which were incredibly uncomfortable during the hot European summers.

The US Navy’s claim that it introduced the first T-shirt to America in 1913 is not unchallenged. Many believe that a man named Howard Jones engineered the first “true T-Shirt,” an absorbent athletic garment designed for athletes on the University of Southern California football squad.

The moviegoing public was stunned in 1934 when Clark Gable appeared in the Oscar winning film, It Happened One Night, wearing his slacks with just a T-shirt. With Claudette Colbert in the same motel room, albeit behind a flimsy hanging-sheet “wall,” it was too much for some moralizers, who quickly instituted censorship via a movie rating “commission.”

In World War II, the T-shirt soared to new heights of popularity. Somewhat ironically, photos of American soldiers doing labor in T-shirts glamorized the garments. Shortly after the war ended, in 1948, presidential challenger Thomas Dewey used a massive T-shirt campaign to advocate for his candidacy. Four years later, general Dwight D. Eisenhower also employed a T-shirt campaign (“I like Ike!”) to generate interest. Around this time, American icons like James Dean, John Wayne and Marlon Brando “shockingly” wore T-shirts both in public and in their TV and film appearances. These cultural moments paved the way for a broad new popular appreciation of the T-shirt.

Modern History

In the 1960s and 1970s, the counterculture movement claimed the T-shirt as a symbol of its rebellion. So-called “tie dyed” T-shirts became the rage; screen printing and other home design techniques also empowered people to tailor their own T-Shirt messages. Professional designers expanded the form as well, offering alternative cuts and styles, such as the scoop neck, tank top, and V-neck.

By the 1980s, the T-shirt had solidified its place as a defining garment of a generation. Counterculture figures galore embraced the T-shirt and made it a staple of the American wardrobe. Rock bands, political activists, and other iconic figures of the Vietnam and Woodstock generation all helped cement the T-shirt’s cultural position in the pantheon of native dress.

In the 1990s, the T-shirt evolved further as a social phenomenon. So-called “joke T-shirts” became prominent. Many such shirts included bawdy jokes, lewd plays on words, and the like. At the same time, top-tier designers were reinventing the form as a luxury garment.

By the turn of the 21st century, designers like Diesel and Versace were selling ultra high-end T-shirts for hundreds of dollars. What’s more, during the first decade of the 21st century, we have seen an increasing trend towards proliferation of independent labels. Thus, the T-shirt marketplace has become more variegated than ever. Traditional T-shirt manufacturers, like Jockey, Heinz, and Calvin Klein, continue to produce millions of standard undergarments every year. Simultaneously, medium and high-end designers evolve their own takes on the concept.

Where did the actual word “T-shirt” come from? The answer to this riddle is a matter of debate. Conventional wisdom suggests that the name comes from the shape of the shirt on the body. However, some believe that “T” in “T-shirt” comes from the last syllable of the word “amputee.” The idea behind this theory is that T-shirts with short sleeves resemble the bodies of amputees. Finally, some believe that the “T” is short for “training.” Given the military origins of the garment, there is some at least anecdotal support for this idea.

Future of the T-shirt

How the T-shirt concept will evolve in the future is anyone’s guess. One trend which many marketers point to is America’s increasing desire for “mass customization.” Society demands more and more mass-produced commodities -- like T-shirts -- but our increasingly individualistic culture simultaneously urges us towards customization. Thus, suggest many designers, the T-shirts of the future may be mass-produced yet made to order. We’ll continue to see the full range of T-shirts currently on the market, but we will also see an increasing number of both professionally customized and clever, “home branded” garments.

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